Please read the following sign and see if there’s anything that doesn’t sit well with you.
Done? OK, now let me point out that when I wrote that first line, I started it by “Read the following sign”. Then I went back and added “Please”. It does not come naturally to me. It’s not because I’m rude, it’s because I’m Greek! Yes, it’s a cultural thing. When I read that sign I immediately thought of my colleague Lefteris, an excellent Greek translator whom I hold in very high esteem, and who brought up this issue in a translation forum a few years ago. His posting was titled “Happy new year and please stop the please” (hence the TM in my title). Two seemingly irrelevant things, but perhaps the latter was actually his wish for the new year. I searched for that posting and just read it once again, and I found myself thinking and saying out loud the same things I had said when I first read it: “Yes! Exactly! Thank you! I know! Amen!”
If I had to translate this sign into Greek, all these pleases would fly out the window. This is not something that only I would do; it is not personal and has nothing to do with politeness or lack thereof. It would actually be the right thing to do, from a translation/adaptation point of view. You don’t see that many “pleases” in Greek instructions. When you dial a number and you get to have a “dialog” with a machine (alas, this is no longer an American privilege), the Greek voice on the other end of the line won’t say “Please press one, please press star, please dial 12345, please don’t curse at me because I’m a machine and you’re wasting your energy”. It might say “please” the first time only; the rest of the instructions are not adorned. And if you think about it, why should they? They are not requests. They are instructions. You don’t need to be asked politely, you’re not doing anyone a favor by pressing the star key; if you don’t want to press it, then don’t, it’s your job that won’t get done.
The liberty to omit the word “please” is actually a blessing in interpretation. Why? Because the Greek equivalent is long! In English it is one short and sweet syllable. In Greek it has a terrifying grand total of 4, 5, or 6 syllables (parakaló, se parakaló, sas parakaló, parakalíste, sas parakalúme – depending on whether you’re talking to one person or more, or depending on whether you –who are saying please- are one person or speaking on behalf of a group, or depending on whether or not you’re using the polite form – it´s similar to saying in English “I ask you to.., we ask you, we ask all of you, you are asked, etc”. And you thought Chinese was difficult.) I remember my very first interpreting exercise in Lucille Barnes’ school in Buenos Aires: the speaker was using the word “coup” (as in coup d’état) repeatedly. By the time I managed to say the 5-syllable Greek equivalent (πραξικόπημα [praxikópima]), the speaker had gone off to another sentence. The 4th time it happened is when I decided that I would never become an interpreter and that I’d rather stick with translation than deal with all the stress caused by a bloody little coup. (I know, never say never, things changed since then and I became a medical interpreter.) But I digress. My point is that if you don’t have to interpret the word “please” 50 times, it’s easier not to fall behind.
As to the sign in my building’s laundry room, it was taken down sometime in the last couple of weeks. Hopefully by a linguistically sensitive neighbor of mine. (I’m saying hopefully because I’d hate to think that I’m the only one that had her blood pressure rise exponentially with every please.)
Please excuse the rambling (now this one was intentional!) and thanks for reading.